The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle

Chapter 9

Symbolic.

How natural, in all decisive circumstances, is Symbolic Representation to all kinds of men! Nay, what is man’s whole terrestrial Life but a Symbolic Representation, and making visible, of the Celestial invisible Force that is in him? By act and world he strives to do it; with sincerity, if possible; failing that, with theatricality, which latter also may have its meaning. An Almack’s Masquerade is not nothing; in more genial ages, your Christmas Guisings, Feasts of the Ass, Abbots of Unreason, were a considerable something: since sport they were; as Almacks may still be sincere wish for sport. But what, on the other hand, must not sincere earnest have been: say, a Hebrew Feast of Tabernacles have been! A whole Nation gathered, in the name of the Highest, under the eye of the Highest; imagination herself flagging under the reality; and all noblest Ceremony as yet not grown ceremonial, but solemn, significant to the outmost fringe! Neither, in modern private life, are theatrical scenes, of tearful women wetting whole ells of cambric in concert, of impassioned bushy-whiskered youth threatening suicide, and such like, to be so entirely detested: drop thou a tear over them thyself rather.

At any rate, one can remark that no Nation will throw-by its work, and deliberately go out to make a scene, without meaning something thereby. For indeed no scenic individual, with knavish hypocritical views, will take the trouble to soliloquise a scene: and now consider, is not a scenic Nation placed precisely in that predicament of soliloquising; for its own behoof alone; to solace its own sensibilities, maudlin or other? — Yet in this respect, of readiness for scenes, the difference of Nations, as of men, is very great. If our Saxon–Puritanic friends, for example, swore and signed their National Covenant, without discharge of gunpowder, or the beating of any drum, in a dingy Covenant–Close of the Edinburgh High-street, in a mean room, where men now drink mean liquor, it was consistent with their ways so to swear it. Our Gallic–Encyclopedic friends, again, must have a Champ-de-Mars, seen of all the world, or universe; and such a Scenic Exhibition, to which the Coliseum Amphitheatre was but a stroller’s barn, as this old Globe of ours had never or hardly ever beheld. Which method also we reckon natural, then and there. Nor perhaps was the respective keeping of these two Oaths far out of due proportion to such respective display in taking them: inverse proportion, namely. For the theatricality of a People goes in a compound-ratio: ratio indeed of their trustfulness, sociability, fervency; but then also of their excitability, of their porosity, not continent; or say, of their explosiveness, hot-flashing, but which does not last.

How true also, once more, is it that no man or Nation of men, conscious of doing a great thing, was ever, in that thing, doing other than a small one! O Champ-de-Mars Federation, with three hundred drummers, twelve hundred wind-musicians, and artillery planted on height after height to boom the tidings of it all over France, in few minutes! Could no Atheist–Naigeon contrive to discern, eighteen centuries off, those Thirteen most poor mean-dressed men, at frugal Supper, in a mean Jewish dwelling, with no symbol but hearts god-initiated into the ‘Divine depth of Sorrow,’ and a Do this in remembrance of me; — and so cease that small difficult crowing of his, if he were not doomed to it?

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30